Despite Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s recent landmark summit with Kim Jong Il, it is still difficult for the rest of the world to grasp the situation in North Korea, particularly how ordinary people live and whether there is sufficient food for them.

But according to Mihoko Tamamura, director of the United Nations World Food Program’s office in Japan, changes in the long reclusive state can be observed, especially in the past year.

“There used to be no freedom of travel for foreign residents in Pyongyang, such as U.N. officials and diplomats,” said Tamamura, who returned Wednesday from an eight-day mission to North Korea.

“But now, they can even drive to areas outside the capital with permission from authorities.

“North Korean officials also tried to hide the really poor areas when we visited for monitoring activities, but such attitudes are now changing,” she said. On this trip she could take pictures freely, with the exception of military installations and port areas.

The major reason behind this change, she offered, is North Korea’s acute food shortage, brought on by declining international support and continued economic difficulties. This year, the international agency estimates the country will be short nearly 1.5 million tons of the cereal equivalent of food.

North Korea has suffered widespread food shortages for many years, fueled by floods, droughts and other natural disasters, coupled with a dire shortage of arable land. The WFP has provided assistance since 1995.

During her trip, Tamamura visited a nursery, pediatric hospital and families in Pyongyang, Hamhung and Wonsan to check whether the U.N. organization’s food assistance is reaching the most vulnerable.

She said such assistance has not only saved lives but has provided incentives for social change, such as increasing the number of children attending school.

Since the WFP started providing food for children on condition that their parents send them to school, class attendance jumped from 75 percent to 95 percent in some areas.

Other changes Tamamura witnessed include North Korea’s move toward market reforms. In July, the government began to allow farmers to cultivate abandoned land privately and sell their products for cash at local markets.

This was illegal before, although similar trading was conducted on the black market.

Severe conditions still continue, however, especially in the country’s northeast, where there is not enough land for agricultural cultivation. Factory output has slowed due to shortages of electricity and the difficulty in importing raw materials, she said.

The WFP was supposed to provide food assistance to 6.4 million people this year, according to its plan, but support for nearly 3 million people will have to be cut because of the lack of international contributions.

“Many crises occurred in various parts of the world this year, including Afghanistan and southern parts of Africa,” she said. “Since the amount of support we can provide is limited, it is very difficult to bring the same level of assistance to North Korea.”

Japan, which was the No. 1 donor in terms of value of support and gave 320,000 tons of rice to North Korea last year, has contributed none so far this year.

“In the case of Japan, political factors are the reason behind this phenomenon,” Tamamura said.

The United States, on the other hand, has replaced Japan as the largest donor both in terms of value and volume of supply, providing 155,090 tons of food despite Washington’s allegation that Pyongyang is developing nuclear missiles and other weapons of mass destruction.

Amid Japan’s uproar over the fate of its citizens abducted to North Korea, Tamamura said it is almost impossible to aggressively seek support from the government.

“We would like to provide as much objective information as possible. We’ll have to wait for the Japanese government’s judgment,” she said. “I really hope people understand the issue and offer support, since it would be a disaster if we don’t address the current situation.”